With the advent of sound in the early 1920s and its adoption by feature length films in 1927, films got dirtier. During the silent era the lack of dialogue constrained plots, and with sound narratives grew more complicated and came to involve adult themes and politics, incorporating dirty speech into what had previously been only dirty images. Beginning in 1929 with established sound pictures, movies began to explore the limits of on-screen portrayals, from single mothers to sex. While censorship did exist pre-talkies, codes varied from state to state and were not highly enforced given film’s reliance on visual innuendoes.
The public became upset by the new movies’ ‘smutty’ dialogue and pushed policy makers into censorship measures and the creation of a national code. This introduced a period of brinksmanship into the film industry, with studios attempting to push boundaries as far as possible before the inevitable crackdown on permissiveness. The last pre-code films were screen in July 1934, filmed in April of that year. By October, the movies playing in theaters nor longer resembled anything that had previously emerged from the studios, and the apologist period began.
We recently discovered a cache of pre-code photographs, from the depth of studio archives. All feature women, representing the popularity and star quality of females during the pre-code era. Before censorship pushed them into the roles of airheads and evil temptresses women were the stars of the box office and movie industry, only relegated to the secondary role they face through today with the advent of the code. While post-code films place value judgments onto how well a role conforms to the “Good Woman” image, 1930s actresses like Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Norma Shearer opened up these stereotypes and played the roles that audiences today identify as “modern women.” These characters played Good, but pushed the boundary of what Good was or meant.
Actresses such as Ethlyne Clair, Leila Hyams, Mary Doran, and Lupe Vélez showed off the broad personalities of their characters through seductive, pensive, and fun photographs. These portraits encapsulate the variety of roles open to and opened by these actresses, not just sexually liberated flappers, but also characterizations of pleasure and intelligence.